Rachel Pastan is the author of the new novel Alena. Her other novels are Lady of the Snakes and This Side of Married. She teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars MFA program, and she lives near Philadelphia.
Q: Your new novel Alena was inspired by Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Why did you decide to write a novel based on Rebecca, and how closely did you decide to follow du Maurier's plot?
A: I had taken a nine-to-five office job—a different kind of job than I’d ever had before. The woman who’d worked there before me, Elysa, had left months before, so I didn’t have anyone to train to me, and I kept making mistakes.
People would say, “Elysa used to do it this way.” I felt inadequate, and in awe of this unknown Elysa. And then I thought: It’s just like Rebecca, only in the workplace! And then I thought: That’s a good idea for a novel.
I decided to try to hit the high points of du Maurier’s plot if I could, and I got most of them. But I didn’t open Rebecca while I was writing. I thought that would make me too slavishly responsive and take away some of my freedom to make things up or choose different directions.
Q: Why did you set the novel in the art world, and what kind of research did you do to write Alena?
A: I work part-time at a contemporary art museum, and I am fascinated by the culture of it. In some ways the art world is very much like my own literary world, but in other ways it’s quite different, and I found myself eager to explore those differences, and to get some of that intriguing culture down on the page.
Most of my research just came naturally through doing my job, but I did read some books about body art—and I also researched the Venice Biennale, where the first part of the novel is set, and where I’ve never been.
Q: Why did you choose Cape Cod as the setting for the book?
A: My family used to spend a month in Cape Cod every summer when I was little, and the landscape has always stayed with me. For years I used to have dreams about the ocean there. Rebecca takes place on a coast—probably of Cornwall. The atmosphere of Cape Cod seemed like a good parallel to me, and I was happy to revisit its beaches in my imagination.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have just started working on a new novel. I’m still at the dreaming and wondering stage—no words on the page yet.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: If people enjoy Alena, they might also like the blog, Miranda, which I write for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. It describes what goes on behind-the-scenes at a small, world class contemporary art museum.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb